President Pervez Musharraf is proving to be a far better tactician with politicians than his commitment to an Army uniform might suggest. Ms Benazir Bhutto is not even back in Pakistan and her credibility has already been eroded. General Musharraf has many disadvantages after more than seven years in power, but he does have one serious advantage in terms of public perception. No one has accused him of being individually corrupt.
Which of the two is funnier? Take your time, there is no hurry, for the competition is keen. If one of the gems is priceless, then the second can only be called invaluable. Ladies first, so let us quote Pakistan’s Prime Minister-in-Waiting Ms Benazir Bhutto. She called her rival Nawaz Sharif’s attempt to return to Pakistan to contest elections, "a mockery of democracy".
If this statement encouraged a belly laugh, as it should, then how do we react to the claim by Pakistan’s Prime Minister-in-Exitmode Shaukat Aziz? The dapper Mr Aziz had this to say about Nawaz Sharif’s brief stay at Islamabad airport, before he was deported to the ever-accommodating Saudi Arabia: "The government did not force Nawaz Sharif to return to Saudi Arabia. We did not force him. I have been told that he was given two options, either go to prison or proceed to Saudi Arabia."
There used to be a gentleman, or not very much of a gentleman, in Victorian England named Thomas Hobson. He used to hire out horses. If any customer wanted a horse, he had to take the one nearest the door or he would not get any. The horses did not become famous, but Thomas Hobson did. His name is immortalised in the phrase ‘Hobson’s Choice’, which implies that you really have no choice. Shaukat Hobson Aziz’s nuanced proposition to Nawaz Sharif would have pleased the old Englishman. Nawaz Sharif was not "forced". He was told, as rudely as possible (simply shoved into a bus and bumped into a waiting plane, while Army commandos laughed and joked), that he could either return to a harsh prison in Pakistan or a gilded cage in Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Aziz, alumnus of the World Bank School of Diplomacy, was careful not to take the blame himself. He is Prime Minister of Pakistan but, according to his own version of events, he seemingly had nothing to do with the decision. He was informed after the event. "I have been told," he said. If this is true, he is not very prime in his ministership. Would Benazir Bhutto, who is desperate for Shaukat Aziz’s job, accept such a limited, primitive prime ministership? Would she be a quiet little dormouse if Nawaz Sharif turned up at Islamabad airport while she was sitting in Shaukat Aziz’s office, and the President decided whether Mr Sharif should go to prison or purgatory or a democratic paradise called the election trail? I daresay she would, unless she wanted to join Nawaz Sharif in Jeddah or Riyadh.
Careful observers will, of course, have noted that Shaukat Hobson Pontius Pilate Aziz has washed his hands of any suggestion that he might be involved in the persecution of Nawaz Sharif. The first lesson World Bank diplomats are taught is that governments might come and governments might go, but the World Bank lives on forever.
The only bank that Expectant Prime Minister Bhutto can depend upon is the vote bank left by her late father, Zulfiqar Ali, assassinated by the cruel rope of a flawed judicial process. She has depleted the Zulfiqar Bank resources substantially with a murky triangular deal between her individual self, Washington and President Pervez Musharraf. It takes some gall to describe a self-serving deal with Army rule as restorative democracy, and dismiss Sharif’s attempt to join the electoral process as a "mockery". It says something about the state of Pakistan’s polity when a lady who would be Prime Minister has to wait in Washington for permission to seek her nation’s foremost executive post.
One has no idea who advises Benazir Bhutto, if, that is, anyone has the temerity to do so, but she might want to forget about the forty suitcases Nawaz Sharif apparently took with him when he was exiled seven years ago. Benazir Bhutto took away a whole English castle when she was turfed out by the Army, not to mention fairly healthy bank accounts in Switzerland. Nawaz Sharif may indeed be as black as black money, but it does not behove a pot to call a kettle black.
What is quite extraordinary is the duplicity of the Pakistan People’s Party over the legitimacy and authority of the nation’s Supreme Court. PPP leaders, most notably the pre-eminent lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, were in the forefront of this year’s passionate, nationwide movement to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to office. This struggle was said to have marked the beginning of a fresh chapter in Pakistan’s democracy, and was certainly instrumental in forcing the Army to compromise with civilian power. The moment Benazir Bhutto was offered the scent of office, she joined the Army in trampling over an order of the Supreme Court permitting Nawaz Sharif to return home.
The Benazir argument, echoed by her parrots, that Mr Sharif should stay away because of some verbal agreement made seven years ago, is specious and untenable. A Supreme Court’s decision supersedes any private agreement that is disputed by one party and, in any event, has no basis in law. Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan with the specific permission of the Supreme Court. The Pakistan People’s Party has just dug a future grave by treating the Supreme Court so contemptuously.
President Pervez Musharraf is proving to be a far better tactician with politicians than his commitment to an Army uniform might suggest. Ms Benazir Bhutto is not even back in Pakistan and her credibility has already been eroded. General Musharraf has many disadvantages after more than seven years in power, but he does have one serious advantage in terms of public perception. No one has accused him of being individually corrupt. He is unlikely to surrender that advantage by withdrawing corruption cases against either Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif. He might bend under pressure from his mentors in Washington, but one doubts if he will stoop so far. Ms Bhutto will not be deported when she returns to Pakistan in late October, since Washington insists upon some cosmetic changes in the power structure of Islamabad. But that is not quite the same thing as re-gilding the lady in honest hues.
Now that Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party has become the King’s Party, Nawaz Sharif will inherit the popular space along with those smaller parties who see merit in his continued confrontation with Army rule. The most vocal of the latter is surely the former cricketer Imran Khan, who commands the attention of the media and makes effective public interventions. Imran Khan possesses the virtue of clarity. He told President Musharraf fairly bluntly that it was about time he woke up. "If you think that by sending Mr Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia you can save your skin, you better stop fooling yourself. Neither can America save you, nor Benazir, and not even the PML(Q) turncoats… God willing, the entire Pakistani nation will rise against you and we will fight you in the streets."
One can see a new political compass drawing fresh arcs: Benazir Bhutto, pro-Musharraf elements in Nawaz Sharif’s party and America are placed in one group; Nawaz Sharif and friends are now the legitimate opposition. It may be too early to claim that the entire Pakistani nation has joined this opposition. But presumably God, whose will Imran Khan has invoked, will soon let us know — through events on the Pakistani street rather than deals in the Islamabad secretariat.